Motion Pictures and Pay TV
A native of San Francisco, MERVYN LEROY took naturally to Hollywood, first as an actor, then as assistant cameraman to Cecil B. DeMille, and finally as producer-director of such smash hits as LITTLE CAESAR, RANDOM HARVEST, THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO, and THE BAD SEED.
HOLLYWOOD, which thrives on crises and romance, nervously finds itself on the threshold of a royal marriage. Having played an elusive philanderer for almost a decade, the motion picture industry, for whom television has been a beguiling and convenient mistress, is about to make an honest woman of its faithful paramour through a proposal of marriage with pay TV; if it should come to pass, despite opposition which has reached clear to the floor of Congress, this royal wedding could have far-reaching repercussions. It may well trigger another bloodless revolution in the field of mass entertainment comparable to that set off thirty years ago by the bold-visioned Warner brothers when they startled a bemused nation with the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer.
There are two powerful groups not radiating joy over the impending liaison. The exhibitors who own the nation’s 20,000 movie houses and those who control the destinies of the giant television networks have a common cause in opposing the marriage of motion pictures and pay TV. Although normally competitors, their billion-dollar investment has brought them together in a mutuality of interest as their newest rival bids for public affection. With stakes so high, the entire subject is fogged in mists of intense partisanship. Charges and countercharges, debates in public forums, and millions of words poured out in the press have made it increasingly difficult for the American people to distinguish fact from propaganda.
In this area the television networks undoubtedly have had a willing ally in Madison Avenue’s topdrawer advertising agencies, for whom the preservation of the status quo in television is an economic must, in view of the handsome commissions they pocket on the millions of dollars their clients spend for TV sponsorship. It would not be surprising if Madison Avenue’s professional hand were behind a highly vocal organization with the name “Committee Against Pay To See TV.” This committee has been sounding the theme that not only is freedom of the air waves an established American tradition, but that pay TV — by its very name — is a threat to every redblooded American’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the same dire vein, Marcus Cohn, counsel for the committee, has stated: “If the American public is ever told it will have to pay for its TV programs the Boston Tea Party will fade into an insignificant skirmish.” So well has the propaganda war been waged that Chairman Emanuel Celler of the House Judiciary Committee warned the Federal Communications Commission —which regulates television broadcasting — to keep its hands off pay TV and let Congress decide. He also introduced a bill imposing a five-year prison term or a fine of $10,000 or both on anyone attempting to impose a fee on home TV viewers. When the FCC authorized a wide test of pay TV, Representative Celler stated he would press for early action in the next session of Congress.
As is usually the case when the kettle is called black, pay TV is not the ogre its opposition has made it out to be. If this statement implies an ulterior motive on my part, it is motivated by a point of view that thus far has not been heard. In the tumult and shouting of recent months, very little, much less an opinion, has been heard from the one group which really has the most to say: the directors, producers, stars, writers, cameramen, art designers, costumers, and many other creators whose collaborative efforts in Hollywood make possible most of America’s entertainment.
I have been identified with the production and direction of motion pictures since 1928. I have spent the better part of a lifetime making responsible and costly movies for a mass audience. I have loved the audience challenge. A successful movie at the box office is seen and enjoyed by millions. I have had more than a fair share of success at the box office, and intend to keep making pictures, because there will always be a demand for good pictures. I do not necessarily regard pay TV as a cure-all. But I am for its marriage with motion pictures. It is a healthy alliance because it opens up exciting new horizons in audience penetration.
Let me make plain that I understand the threat that pay TV poses for many movie exhibitors. I wholeheartedly sympathize with them. Their apprehension is understandable because of their enormous investment in land, theaters, and equipment. But progress, change, evolution —whatever you care to call it — invariably takes its economic toll. The crude nickelodeon of the 1910 era was replaced by comfortable, attractive movie houses. In turn came huge cathedrals of screen entertainment like Radio City Music Hall. A few years ago came a further refinement in moviegoing, the drive-in. It has mushroomed in popularity for a familiar reason, convenience.
The emergence of a new competitor like pay TV will not destroy America’s zest for moviegoing. Quite to the contrary, it will stimulate a desire to see movies. As a people Americans are gregarious. The bright lights of Broadway, Chicago’s State Street, San Francisco’s Market Street will always be a magnet for audiences to crowd first-run theaters.
Pay TV is not a rule-or-ruin situation. It was said that movies would ruin the legitimate stage. They haven’t. Pessimists said radio would hurt motion pictures. It didn’t. When television arrived, the prediction was freely expressed that Hollywood was about to be engulfed in a catastrophe. Movies are still being made and with more enthusiasm than ever.
There are plenty of resourceful exhibitors who will come to grips with the competition of pay TV and capitalize on it. One exhibitor has already shown the way. Early in September, a chain operating one hundred seventy-five theaters in the Southwest began a practical pay-as-you-see operation in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. For a subscription fee of $9.50 per month, residents of Bartlesville are being offered a daily fare of first-run movies. The Bartlesville project is the beginning move for other exhibitors to apply for pay TV franchises throughout the country, using such systems as Telemeter, which I regard as the best developed.
Pay TV will eventually be the bridge that will transport new and old audiences to attend fullyequipped movie theaters, because of the dramatic difference in screens. The wide screens which today enable theaters to project such processes as CinemaScope, Warnervision, Vista-Vision, and Todd-AO offer a depth and dimension that home screens cannot match. As the mass distribution of paperback editions has augmented reader volume for the book business, pay TV will create a fresh audience for motion picture theaters.
Unlike the exhibitor’s situation, the opposition of the television networks to pay TV is frankly indefensible. The intensity of their apprehension is a clear reflection of the excesses they have committed against the American public in the name of good entertainment and standards of quality. There are things television does superbly well. In the broadcasting of fast-breaking news events, political conventions, sports, debates, travelogues, educational projects, it has been exciting and topical. In such undertakings as Omnibus or Wide Wide World, television also has functioned with great effectiveness.
But the reverse side of the coin is anything but shiny. Such entertainment hodgepodge as giveaway panels, unspectacular spectaculars, warmedover dramatic hours, and a plethora of situation comedy shows has alienated and wearied many television viewers. The responsibility for this is split three ways between the networks, Madison Avenue’s advertising agencies who call the turn, and the big-time commercial sponsors who foot the bills.
In the last analysis Madison Avenue mirrors the prejudices, ideas, and tastes of hardheaded sponsors who know next to nothing about show business but are willing to pay for it as an acceptable interlude between commercials. Since there is no box office in television, Madison Avenue has devised systems for measuring popularity on TV such as the Nielsen, Trendex, and other ratings. Each week these ratings purport to reassure the uncertain sponsor by reporting the number of Americans glued to his show. The net effect has been to drive a score of talented performers from the network channels.
If anything justifies the marriage of pay TV with the motion picture industry it is television’s indiscriminate, wholesale appropriation of old movies. With no particular regard for standards, the television networks and their station affiliates have bought up for reshowing on home television screens hundreds of films made prior to 1948. Many of the films range back to the early thirties. In the outpouring of movies to the TV public, fine films and trash have been lumped together. I know something about old movies on television. Some twenty of my pictures, including such wellremembered favorites as The Wizard of Oz, Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Little Caesar, Waterloo Bridge, and Random Harvest, to name a few, have appeared on television screens. I have been pleasantly surprised to receive many letters from TV viewers who have enjoyed seeing my pictures despite the barrage of interrupting commercials.
These letters are important as a barometer of the audience that is building for the appearance of quality, first-run motion pictures via a convenient and nominally-priced subscription TV system. And I am firmly convinced that these good films will drive out the bad.
No MATTER where the chips fall for the exhibitors or the television networks, pay TV s marriage with motion pictures cannot be halted, because of the inexorable changing social scene in America since the end of World War II.
America is changing its entertainment patterns as radically as it is changing its way of living. America is on the move from the cities to suburbia. Decentralization has led to such social phenomena as all-inclusive shopping centers and do-it-yourself projects. The home again is a focal point of interest. Americans are marrying younger because of better economic conditions — and raising families. Classes of society arc upgrading themselves. What was once an upper-lower class has become part of a big middle class. Because it has a zest for living, this middle class has become a tremendously important consumer market.
From the creative standpoint, a marriage of pay TV and motion pictures promises to open up exciting new horizons in mass audience exposure. Unlike some freewheeling thinking in Hollywood that anything will make money on pay TV, this mass audience will create exacting standards that should prove rewarding to those who artistically meet the acid test.
Pay TV will represent a wonderful coming of age for the talented writer, director, and producer. Great screen properties, like great plays or novels, are never plentiful. The acute demand that exists today in Hollywood for good story material will be accelerated by pay TV. It will also encourage bolder writing, which in turn holds promise for a widening maturity of themes on the screen.
The amalgamation will be healthy on many creative fronts, particularly in opening doors to new talent in the fields of producing and directing. Let me warn, however, that pay TV represents no short cut to success. A meticulous and intense apprenticeship is still a prerequisite for authority and skill as a producer or director. Pay TV, with its critical audience, will be no less exacting than the audiences in the movie theaters.
Finally, pay TV will not only provide a golden showcase for the talented star and the exciting personality, but will, of necessity, spur a fresh and unending search for new talent. Star dust is never easy to come by. The discovery of new stars will take on a new zest and purpose.
When the cultural history of twentieth-century America is written, its outstanding characteristic may well be the acceleration that has taken place in the field of mass communications. Consider the developments in a single lifetime: the telephone, high speed presses, the teletype, motion pictures, radio, the phonograph, television. Pay TV is clearly part of this exciting evolution.
Some skeptics in the motion picture industry persist in saying that it is impossible to tailor fulllength movies made for the theater’s wide screen to the home television screen. What about a Ten Commandments, a Giant, they ask? My answer is that the yardstick of quality is not the size of the screen but what you put on it. Nothing suffers on the screen if it’s good. A bad picture is bad whether it plays Radio City Music Hall or your living room. A good picture will prove its quality on a small screen in your home or on a wide screen in your favorite theater. It’s as simple as that.